Tim Burstall

English Australian film director, writer, and producer.

Timothy Burstall AM (1927-2004) was an English Australian film director, writer, and producer, best known for the hit Australian movie Alvin Purple (1973) and its sequel Alvin Rides Again.

Burstall's films featured early appearances by many legendary Australian actors including Jack Thompson, Bruce Spence, Jacki Weaver, Alvin star Graeme Blundell, John Waters, and Judy Davis.

Speaking just after Burstall's death, David Williamson said that Burstall "couldn't stomach" Australia's lack of film industry. "He was determined to do something about it and he had the energy and spirit to do it. (He) was a very important cultural figure: highly intelligent, widely read, with a succinct and often highly controversial opinion on everything."

Burstall was born in Stockton-on-Tees, England in 1927. His family came to Australia in 1937 after his father took up a chair as professor of engineering at the University of Melbourne. Attending Geelong Grammar, Burstall was taught by historian Manning Clark. When his parents returned to England after World War II he remained in Australia. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree with Honours in History from the University of Melbourne in 1946, where he resided at Queen's College. He met Betty, whom he married, at the university. They built a mud-brick house at Eltham, Victoria. The family home from 1967-2013 was 148 Nicholson Street, Fitzroy (sold, 2013). He later attended the University of Sydney and the University of California, Los Angeles.

Burstall originally wanted to be a novelist and thought that if he worked in film it might be a way to move into writing. He went to work for the National Film Library with a view to getting a job at the Commonwealth Film Unit as a scriptwriter. He worked on a series of documentaries, editing and writing for the Antarctic Division. He became interested in filmmaking after seeing the 1953 French film White Mane at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

He and Patrick Ryan established Eltham Films in 1959.

In February 2012 sections of Burstall's personal journals from 1953–1955 were published by Melbourne University Press, under the title Memoirs of a Young Bastard.

Early career

Burstall's first film was a black-and-white short, The Prize. With photography by Gérard Vandenberg, The Prize won a bronze at the 1960 Venice Film Festival. Burstall's two young sons had acting roles.

Working with David Bilcock, Dusan Marek, Giorgio Mangiamele, Gérard Vandenburg, Allan Harness and composer George Dreyfus, Eltham Films made many short subjects, including acclaimed documentaries on Australian art, and early children's puppet series Sebastian the Fox. The latter first screened on the ABC in 1962-63, and Burstall later described the title character as "one of the first recessive Oz heroes".

From 1965 to 67 Burstall was in the United States on a Harkness Fellowship. He studied scriptwriting with Paddy Chayefsky, directing with Martin Ritt, and acting with Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio in New York.

La Mama Theatre

One of the results of the trip would be the founding by Tim's wife Betty Burstall of La Mama Theatre back in Carlton, Melbourne. It opened on 30 July 1967, modeled on the "off-off-Broadway" theatre of the same name in New York City.

After America

Burstall wrote and directed the 1969 feature 2000 Weeks. A commercial failure, savaged by the critics, the film's poor reception would lead Burstall to move to more populist works with his next films, Stork and sex comedy Alvin Purple. The film's failure also influenced Bruce Beresford and Phillip Adams to move in a more populist direction when they came to make early Australian hit The Adventures of Barry McKenzie in 1972.

Burstall then formed a new company with Pat Ryan, David Bilcock, and Rob Copping, Bilock and Copping with the view to making commercials to fund features. He looked at making a film called Filth and had money to develop it, but decided to make Stork instead.

Stork and David Williamson

Stork appeared in 1971 and proved a moderate commercial success. The title role had been written for him. Stork won multiple Australian Film Institute awards, including best narrative feature, best director and best actor.

After the breakout success of Alvin Purple, Burstall would later return to work with Williamson on three further films: social drama Petersen (1974), which was seen in England and the United States (for which Stanley Kubrick praised Burstall for his direction and Jack Thompson for his acting), big-budget romp Eliza Fraser (1976, the first major Australian period movie) and Duet for Four (1982), the tale of a mid-life crisis. Burstall has argued that Eliza Fraser was made for an increased budget after Roadshow insisted on overseas stars; Susannah York played Eliza, and the cast also included Trevor Howard.

Alvin Purple

After forming Hexagon Productions, Burstall directed, produced, and co-wrote (with Alan Hopgood) his next feature, sex comedy Alvin Purple (1973). The film was released in some territories as The Sex Therapist. Burstall estimated that he made $120,000 from Alvin Purple. The film spawned a successful sequel which Burstall co-wrote. Later Hexagon films performed less well at the box office. In 1980 Burstall made a film for another company when he took over war movie Attack Force Z after Phillip Noyce had creative disagreements with the producers just before filming was due to begin.


Burstall directed episodes of series including Special Squad, Return to Eden II, The Man from Snowy River and Water Rats. His miniseries Great Expectations: The Untold Story was the first co-production between an independent filmmaker and ABC TV.

Recognition and achievements

Burstall won a number of Australian Film Institute awards for his work, including best director for Stork (which also won the grand prize) and a best director nomination for his 1976 thriller End Play. His final theatrical feature was an adaptation of DH Lawrence novel Kangaroo in 1986. He was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the Australia Day Honours 1996. His wife Betty had been similarly honored in 1993.


On the evening of 18 April, 2004 Burstall suffered a stroke. He was 76. He was survived by his wife Betty (d. 2013) and his sons Dan and Tom.

Adapted from content published on wikipedia.org
Last modified on July 12, 2021, 11:42 am
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